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A Gun and a Guitar

February 7, 2014 | by

Jerry McGill: Sun Records artist, Memphis fixture, and “crazy sonofabitch.”

Jerry McGill

Photo: Randall Lyon, Jim Lancaster

Jerry McGill by the numbers, hazy as they may be: He cut one 45 for Sun Records (the rockabilly “Lovestruck,” with a backing band that included Charlie Rich). Years later, in the backseat of a limousine in Memphis, he cowrote one more song with Waylon Jennings. Shot at least three bullet holes into the ceiling of the Sam Phillips Recording Studio, where they still remain. Racked up nearly a hundred arrests. Assumed six aliases. Disappeared for twenty-five years—and ultimately reemerged, at the behest of filmmaker Paul Duane, to collaborate on Very Extremely Dangerous, a documentary about the tornadic trajectory of his life. In January, Dangerous was shown at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, accompanied by a reading from Memphis writer-producer Robert Gordon, whose films will screen this month.

Flash back forty years, to the dimly lit bars, back rooms, and late Delta nights traversed by William Eggleston with his Sony Porta Pak, an early video camera. “It was back when everyone liked quaaludes. ‘Let’s get down,’ ” narrates Eggleston in his cinema verité of that era, 1974’s Stranded in Canton. His voice trails off into the sound of a shot fired and then Jerry McGill’s face jumps into the frame, wild and practically translucent. McGill has the looks of Mick Jagger, the constitution of Keith Richards, and the heart, it would seem, of a snake. His eyes masked in sunglasses, he grins in the dark, lunges, thrusts the barrel of his gun to the head of another man, and holds it there.

That scene still haunts. Rachel Kushner, in a portfolio of her visual inspiration for The Flamethrowers published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review, included a still of McGill from the film. The same screen capture accompanied McGill’s death notice in the Memphis Commercial Appeal last spring. It was seeing that gunplay scene and reading about McGill’s exploits in Gordon’s It Came from Memphis that inspired Duane to seek out the elusive, felonious musician.

In the midseventies demimonde of Memphis, things had a way of becoming totally and suddenly unhinged, and McGill was frequently the author of their unhinging. As Waylon’s vagabond and oft-arrested rhythm guitarist—prone to performing in disguise when the alias he then toured under, Curtis Buck, did not offer sufficient protection—McGill arguably out-outlawed the Country Outlaw himself. “Curtis Buck was a crazy sonofabitch and he ran around with me,” Jennings writes in Waylon: An Autobiography. “While I was singing, he’d go find the girls, and if we needed drugs, he’d go find the dope.” When Duane and Gordon teamed up to document McGill, it was a devil’s handshake deal: knowingly, if not entirely willingly, they submitted to the volatile ways of their subject. True, McGill had just been diagnosed with cancer and professed a desire to revitalize his music career. But altering his violent ways was not part of the program. Read More »

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